Ten Years, Kansas City

Robert Bingaman
Jun 29, 2017 · 5 min read

As of this day, with thanks to Facebook’s thing for memories, I have lived in Kansas City for 10 years. My wife (then girlfriend) and I moved here for reasons that are pragmatically romantic, if that’s even possible. The city belonged to neither of us, we could start as equals; never deferring to whatever opportunity or community brought us here. Because there wasn’t one. It was cheap and imaginable — our launchpad to the greatness we saw awaiting us along either coast. As we told our parents, that would come in five years at the very most.

In August of 2007 — two months after we moved here from separate places — we were engaged. I waited until August because she would be in California, where our courtship began. I surprised her at a lighthouse that means something to us. I was jobless, but only somewhat panicked, seeing as how I was buying rings and airfare. (I knew everything would be fine, I had two art degrees). Unseen in the cities beneath my desert-connected flights, the home foreclosure rates were skyrocketing. By the end of the year — with little attention from the press (and none from me) — the nationwide foreclosure rate doubled. The greatest economic collapse of our time was yawning awake.

In June of 2008, we were married at the Longview Mansion, as witnessed by our families, closest friends, and as many new locals as we could gather in one year’s time. By then, a year after our arrival, I was trying to recover my confidence. For some reason — perhaps because it was closer to my birthplace — I believed Kansas City would be “even easier” than St. Louis (where I attended Graduate School). I believed that I would conquer it, that my talent and taste would float me higher than the other balloons. I would not be known as a painter, but a wizard. And though I liked it, I thought Kansas City was provincial. I was another Johnny Damon working out his swing. Future local trivia. Yes, that’s how I saw it.

Kansas City had other plans. By 2009, I had grown small in stature. I had entered the Dolphin Gallery a few times, sometimes with a “packet” in my hand (God bless me), always with my heart in my throat. The owner, John O’Brien, was impossible to decipher. Somehow, I got him to come north of the river, to my first studio in town. He was mysterious, generous, and intimidating — in that strange order. To finish his visit, he smiled and said, “I’m excited to see what you do next.”

My response to fear, jealousy, anger, uncertainty, desire, hope, and love was to work. To paint. I withdrew the remaining $4,200 from the crashed fund my grandpa established for my retirement to turn our one-car garage into a studio. Flat white walls. Black linoleum tile. I tried to paint every day. I painted after dinner, till two or three.

I gathered the courage to ask O’Brien for another visit. “You know, I don’t usually do these studio visits,” he replied. And yet on a warm spring day in 2010, I sat on my front steps with sincere anguish, waiting for John O’Brien, who was late. Waiting, I chain smoked for the first (and last) time in my life. Once he arrived, we spent about five minutes in the studio. “This is nice to see, can we sit on your porch?” I got beer on him each time I passed him a new bottle. He smiled. My wife waited in the house, silently absorbing my sad angst. I have no recollection of what John and I discussed. I just wanted a show and a copy of the keys to his club. In my own skewed vision, it was far past time.

After an hour or so, perhaps seeing that my heart rate had finally begun to slow, he said something so openhanded that it forked my path; changed the future. “You know, I just want to have a couple beers with you.” I had neither the maturity nor the vision to understand what that meant — to see it for what it was — an honest attempt to reach inside the machine and shut it down. “Finish that painting,” he said as he left.

Ten years on, I’m deep in a strange love affair with the city. For each of the years since that evening with John, I have ten stories like it about other people. Stories about people who cared enough. Some are outsiders like I was. Most are natives that accepted and promoted me as their own. Maybe they do that in other cities. I only know this one.

Ten years on, a new phenomenon: meeting young people. Some want keys to a club I know nothing about, some are irreverent of anything they can be. They’re all vibrant and wonderful.

Ten years on, I don’t paint every day. I don’t even have a studio. Success is looking at something — anything — until I understand more than I did. Success is letting go of definitions in favor of the nature of things, if even for a glimpse. To let whatever it is that truly animates me find its way to the world. What work. I walk five miles a day. I do it to find my pace. To deposit embarrassments and regrets in holes that will be repaved. To feel my height and the city. To notice my restlessness. It rushes in. No rush.

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